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How is lean different from Taylorism?

March 7, 2016
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In a special column, Michael Ballé breaks from his standard practice of answering readers’ questions to weigh in on the controversy comparing lean management to “Taylorism” triggered by the recent story “Medical Taylorism” in the New England Of Medicine. –Ed.

How is lean different from Taylorism?

They are completely different indeed. They differ in their purpose, their practice and their outcomes. Lean is about self-reflection and seeking smarter, less wasteful dynamic solutions together. Taylorism is about static optimization of work imposed by “those who know” on “those who do.”

I had the opportunity to study Taylor and Taylorism 20 years ago as part of my doctoral dissertation because I encountered your question very early on. The supplier I was studying as a field case had been visited by two automakers as part of their supplier integration program.

The first automaker’s engineers went to a line at the supplier’s site, took out their stopwatches, measured each operator’s work cycle and concluded there was a potential of 30% productivity improvement. They then told the supplier to surrender 15% right away as a price reduction, and they would show the supplier how to achieve the productivity improvement, letting them keep the remaining 15%. How? the supplier asked. Well, the engineers explained, when we study each operators’ motion we can see that some of it is value-added work (contributing to build the product directly) and some of it is waste (doesn’t contribute to build the product directly), and we’ll teach you how to reorganize the line to specify in detail how people can work with less waste. In other words, they were using “lean” (then fashionable) terms to describe a classic time study.

The other automaker was Toyota. Engineers also used stopwatches to conclude that, similarly, there was a 30% productivity potential gain on the line. How? Well, they said, there is a lot of variation in the time each operator takes to complete a full cycle. If we create a work environment (which later turned out to be pull system, small batches, and hourly production analysis) to help engineers and operators learn together about the causes of such variation, we’ll progressively rearrange the line by solving one problem after the next so the line  will be more productive. Their idea was to teach the supplier’s manufacturing engineers to work with operators through a steady pull and Production Analysis Boards to make work easier, progressively, and achieve improvements one by one. The supplier went with Toyota, who never asked to be paid for this work. The benefit became clear when, at product renewal four years later, the improvements on the line led to a 30% total cost reduction (not labor, total) for the new version, which Toyota then split half-ways with the supplier.

Myth Busting

Like many management theories, such as Maslow’s motivational pyramid (myth) or Mayo’s Hawthorne experiment (myth), Taylorism is not built on fact, but on one brilliant guy’s insight and salesmanship.

Taylor’s insight – which was brilliant in the mid-nineteenth century – was that by studying work activity by activity, cherry picking how the most efficient workers did the task, and imposing the method on all other workers, one could make spectacular efficiency gains. No debate here. He immediately confronted three real-life setbacks:

  • No man likes to work with a method imposed on him – people naturally resist being told how to work, even more so when the method is compulsory. Taylor concluded that most workers were lazy and “soldiered on,” in his terms, which is to say, worked beneath their potential for fear of management discovering what they could actually do and ask it of them every day. He therefore suggested paying 60% more to the workers willing to do it his way.
  • It’s relatively easy to define a better way to work on simple tasks, such as moving iron bars or shoveling coal from one place to the other. But as soon as the task needs craft skills, the engineer defining the one-best way is very likely to miss what makes the quality of the job. Taylor’s followers solved this problem by specializing operators by narrower and narrower tasks as is ridiculed in Chaplin’s Modern Times https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfGs2Y5WJ14 . Ford plants ultimately took it to an extremewith equally extreme social consequences. Operators were indeed paid higher wages because if not they would quit in despair and some Ford plants were policed by armed supervisors.
  • Imposing Taylorist methods to large bodies of workers created resistance and endless union problems for a multitude of reasons. (One being that since the company would now provide the tools of the trade, employees could join the line directly without going through a union “boss” who hired full work gangs, thus squeezing the union out of the loop.) But in any case, Taylor’s method embittered relationships between workers and management wherever it spread at a time when labor was establishing itself as a negotiating partner to owners. Taylor himself was fired from Bethlehem Steel where he experimented most with his approach in 1901.

Unscientific Management

Taylor did radically change management. But there was never anything much “scientific” about his approach. During lectures around the country and abroad, he repeated endlessly the famous stories in his book, such as increasing the output of pig-iron handling from 12.5 tons per man, per day to 47.5 tons per man, per day (with a bonus when the quota was met). No real data was ever kept – or found.

Notwithstanding, Taylor’s method created a new class of engineers (“college men”), devoted to making work methods more efficient, and which had to be paid from the productivity improvements themselves. As Taylor impressed minds around the country, the burgeoning “management” departments accepted three ideas, which would have deep and disturbing consequences:

  1. Experts define the job, workers execute. Forget pig iron handling and think computer software these days. The analyst defines the process, hard codes it the system, and the operators execute. Seems natural.
  2. Pay for performance. Originally invented to convince a few operators to take on the crazy Taylorist targets, pay for performance spread to executive suites with the catastrophic results we know.
  3. Productivity means increasing output, whether we need it or not. Financiers, today in the 21st century, are still more focused on cost reduction through higher piece rate than overall business performance.

By contrast, lean essentially originated at Toyota in the 1960s and 1970s. In its historical context, “soldiering on” was never an issue in post-war Japan: of course people came to work to work hard. Toyota’s problems were very different:

  1. How to achieve consistent quality over an increasing range of cars on the same lines?
  2. How to achieve consistent productivity while increasing product diversity on the lines?
  3. How to never have a strike again? The company was lastingly traumatized by post war strikes and its management swore that this would never happen again.

Low Cost Meets Craft Mentality

Toyota was very aware of the cost advantage of mass production. Its leaders realized early on that cost reduction through volume would never fit their high diversity strategy, but that they needed to come up with a way to compete with the low unit cost effect of saturating lines with repetitive work. As a result, they invented what we came to call “lean,” explicitly seeking the cost benefit of mass production while maintaining a craft mentality on the shop floor. They completely diverged from mass production on key principles such as:

Ideas must come from the operators themselves. The role of management is not to organize workers minutely, but to instruct and improve, to teach workers the standards and seek “positive variance,” the many good ideas that make work easier and improves overall flow. Ideas are expected to flow from workers and management is there to help them make these ideas work.

  1. Quality before unit cost. The greatest source of overall cost reduction is the elimination of defects and rework at line and plant levels. Toyota’s trick to making money is not producing faster to lower spot unit costs, but producing right the first time. The main source of real productivity is to learn to see defectives earlier on and solve them right away – even if it means stopping production for the time it takes to get back into standard conditions.
  2. Flow rather than output. Producing huge quantities of one part to lower the unit cost doesn’t make any sense if this results in inventories and stagnation. Moving more metal for the sake of moving more metal will only create more costs somewhere else. Production must follow takt time to make sure all processes collaborate with each other in moving at exactly the right time and thus optimize the use of capital equipment.
  3. Teamwork is the source of sustained profitability. Kiichiro Toyoda’s original just-in-time system was meant to make sites, equipment and people work better together to produce value without generating waste. Opportunities for waste reduction occur within collaborative relationships, with customers, with employees, with suppliers. The adversarial situations created by the Taylorist approach might yield spot cost gains locally but create such a work atmosphere that everyone loses overall.

Consultants, Executives, and Profs

Some people still confuse lean and Taylorism, sometimes willfully so. But the gap between lean and Taylorism is not a matter of surface differences to cover essentially similar approaches, but, on the contrary, fundamentally different approaches (in aims, origin, practices) with occasional surface similarities. Part of our difficulty is that many in the business world are still intent on labeling lean as Taylorism for their own reasons:

  • Consultants don’t get what it means to be a sensei. To a large extent, management consultancy was born of Taylorism. Consultants are brought in to optimize situations where the people running the process are felt to be incapable of doing it themselves. Lean senseis, on the contrary, are there how to show you to become great when you’re already good. They don’t tell you what to do. They show you improvement potential and hint at better ways of doing things. The employees themselves do all the learning and come up with their own processes – it’s their work, their responsibility, their improvement. Senseis merely point the way.
  • Executives don’t get flow. Executives are still often completely focused on reducing costs place by place, budget line by budget line. They don’t think twice before delocalizing production to a lower cost country, ignoring the systemic cost of longer supply lines and inventories. Such executives can always trump the lean systemic approach by showing that, locally, good ol’ Taylorist intervention can radically improve output – certainly it can - but at what overall cost? Executives who refuse to consider quality and lead-time as the key to long-term profitability keep calling their Taylorist approach “lean” (it sounds better).
  • Business school professors don’t get gemba. Business school professors have, historically, been the most resistant to lean ideas. They see in lean an organizational approach connected to what went before: Taylor’s work studies, Ford’s flow line, Deming’s quality statistical approaches, and so on. Professors refuse to see the value of the gemba, working first-hand with operators to get their ideas and teach them to solve their own problems. They keep looking for high-level structural solutions and refuse to consider the organic nature of lean work, the deep work with managers and employees on the shop floor, issue after issue, idea after idea.

The problem, of course, is that by mixing up lean and Taylorism, whether intentionally or by simple lack of curiosity, people increase the confusion and muddle the field (think of lean six sigma). Lean is a specific way of thinking and learning, born out of Toyota’s many experiments. Lean is also a documented field, with thousands of case studies of both successes and failures and not just a collection of “just so” stories.

Thanks, Fred

Don’t take me wrong, I have to confess a soft spot for Taylor, the man himself. By all accounts, he was a difficult and contrary character (who can blame him?) but he certainly meant well, and he did seek a way to reconcile management and workers’ interests through greater productivity and higher wages. We all know what it’s like to have a new idea, be certain it works, and meet resistance, obstruction, misinterpretation, misdirection. Then, in the end, your idea is taken up in ways you hadn’t intended; it makes you cringe.

Those I can’t abide are Taylorists, still, in this 21st century.  Yes, Taylor has been misunderstood and unjustly vilified - maybe. But that was a long time ago. There is no misunderstanding, however, about the horrors committed in his name, using his techniques, particularly in Western industry in the 1930s to the 1960s.

Taylorism is a historical fact, and a set of ideas and attitudes, we are desperately seeking to put behind us because of the untold waste: human (employee disengagement), business (cost over quality) and societal (promoting expert- based conflict rather than collaboration). Lean is something else altogether. So, let’s put this old ghost to rest and move on, shall we?

3 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani March 7, 2016

Michael - Bravo! Nicely done.

I think the continuing weakness in the conversation about Taylorism and Toyota's Production System (a.k.a. "Lean") is a lack of appreciation for the fact that Taylor's work (and work by Ford, Gilbreth, and others) initiated the lengthy EVOLUTION towards TPS. See http://www.bobemiliani.com/lean-can-learn-from-history/

The confusion between Taylorism and Lean is pervasive and, in my view, will remain so and therefore disadvantage Lean until such time as the Lean community owns Taylorism as part of the evolutionary history of Lean management. Taylorism is Lean's ancestor, like it or not.

The ghost is likely never to be laid to rest, and therefore "...desperately seeking to put [Taylor] behind us" is wrong in my view. Instead, the approach needs to change from separating Taylor from Lean to understanding Taylor as a starting point in the long evolution towards a far better system of management called Lean.

And yes, to be a Taylorist today - to try to improve work today in the same way as Taylor did in 1900 - is just plain stupid.

Michael Ballé March 8, 2016

Thanks Bob!

sid joynson March 8, 2016

We can only hope that Lean adds as much too human prosperity in the 21st century as Taylorism did in the 19th and 20th. As industrial engineers in the 1960’s our role models were the American automotive and machine tool industries and we saw Taylor and the Gilbreths as the founders of this system of productivity improvement. When I moved into the machine tool and metal cutting industries I was again influenced by Taylor’s work, particularly his equation VT n=C.

We must remember the world of the later years of the 19th century was very different; the attitude to workers was not what we would accept today, but it was the environment within which Taylor operated.

Taylor was brought before a senate committee in 1912 to defend his system. I like to think we can see his real motivation in one of his replies.

ChairmanWilson.                                                                                                                                            “What is the economic necessity for increasing production?”

Taylor.                                                                     “The whole world suffers now, as it always has from underproduction. Underproduction is responsible for low wages, and the reason the poor have fewer things in terms of the basics and luxuries to live on. Have poorer food to eat, pay higher prices for their rent, can afford fewer clothes.

 The only way to bring this thing into the world is to increase production. Scientific management is about greatly increasing the output of the man, without materially increasing his effort.

I firmly believe in the next hundred years the wealth of the world will grow to such an extent that the workman of the day will live almost as well as the business man lives now, both as to the necessities and the luxuries of life.”

When I compare the life of my great-grandfather with that of the modern worker, Taylor’s were prophetic. Great grandfather was a horse drawn wagon driver, lived with grandma and six children in a rented two-up and two-down house with no running water.  The average worker of today has a car, house, mobile phone, a house full of labour saving devices, several TV’s and holidays etc. etc.

Whilst there may be differing opinions about Taylor, I would leave the last word to someone we all admire; Peter Drucker

"In 1881, an American, Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), first applied knowledge to the study of work, the analysis of work, and the engineering of work. .  

By 1930, Taylor's Scientific Management -- despite resistance from unions and from intellectuals -- had swept the developed world. As a result, Marx's 'proletarian' became a 'bourgeois.' The blue-collar worker in manufacturing industry, the 'proletarian' rather than the 'capitalist,' became the true beneficiary of Capitalism and Industrial Revolution. This explains the total failure of Marxism in the highly developed countries for which Marx had predicted 'revolution' by 1900. . . . It explains why the Great Depression did not lead to Communist revolution. . . . By that time, Marx's proletarians had not yet become affluent, but they had become middle class. They had become productive.

Darwin, Marx, Freud' form the trinity often cited as the 'makers of the modern world.' Marx would be taken out and replaced by Taylor if there were any justice in the world. But that Taylor is not given his due is a minor matter. It is a serious matter that far too few people realize that the application of knowledge to work created developed economies by setting off the productivity explosion of the last hundred years."

-- From Post-Capitalist Society,